Story: Cold War

Page 5. The last decade: the 1980s

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Second cold war

The last decade of the Cold War saw a preoccupation less with ideology or territory than with the superpowers’ fear of one another. At the end of the 1970s the earlier hopes of ‘détente’ (cooperation) gave way to a period of renewed tension and arms competition, sometimes called the ‘second cold war’. It was marked by the appearance of ever-newer forms of nuclear weapons. When the Soviet Union began to deploy missiles which threatened Europe, the United States countered by deploying their own missiles to Europe. In the ensuing agitation, Moscow became convinced that Washington was planning a nuclear attack. It was the last major crisis of the Cold War. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan agreed on a major reduction in weapons stocks after a meeting at Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986. This changed the whole atmosphere of mutual suspicion.

Boycotting the games

The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led Britain and the US to instigate a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic games. Robert Muldoon’s National government exerted strong pressure on New Zealand athletes not to attend. In the end only four athletes went and at the opening ceremony they marched behind a black flag with a silver fern rather than New Zealand’s official flag. None won any medals. The protest resulted in a ‘tit-for-tat’ Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles games.

End of the world?

The alarm of the early 1980s reverberated in New Zealand and heightened the concern about nuclear weapons. In those years the ‘doomsday clock’ of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which measures how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction, hovered constantly near the perilous midnight of nuclear extinction. Noted intellectuals regularly warned that this extinction was not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’. In 1987 the government commissioned a study into how New Zealand could survive a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere. In this climate there were vocal fears that association with the US in the ANZUS alliance might involve New Zealand in nuclear war.

ANZUS and nuclear weapons

The Vietnam War brought ANZUS into the public eye and, as disillusionment increased, the alliance was blamed for dragging New Zealand into foreign wars. New Zealand’s reluctant participation had in fact owed as much to the government’s desire to keep the Americans involved in South-East Asia as it did to ANZUS obligations. But as worries about South-East Asia faded, the alliance seemed both unnecessary and a possible future risk. Some argued that if New Zealand could not be non-aligned it might at least become ‘semi-aligned’. Opposition to nuclear weapons and doubts about American foreign policy came together in growing resistance to American naval visits.

Although polls showed most New Zealanders supported ANZUS, they also showed that most opposed the presence of nuclear-powered and -armed ships – and this carried the day. In 1985 David Lange’s Labour government declined the visit of an American destroyer, leading the US to downgrade its military and diplomatic ties with New Zealand. Following the passing of the 1987 nuclear-free act, the US formally suspended its security guarantee to New Zealand, effectively isolating it from the ANZUS alliance.

Lange’s complaint

David Lange complained to the Soviet ambassador about Soviet propaganda broadcasts. Moscow was said to be jubilant at Lange’s election. The London KGB residency was told that Moscow attached huge importance to organising European support for the decision to ban nuclear-armed US ships from New Zealand ports and for his anti-nuclear policies in general.

Soviet empire collapses

There were Cold War echoes in the dispute, and Lange had to rebuke Moscow for showing unseemly glee. But by then many thought the Cold War and its accompanying military alliances to be irrelevant and there was no move by succeeding governments to restore New Zealand’s role in ANZUS. The Soviet Union, exhausted by its efforts to remain a superpower, lost confidence in its own ideology. It abandoned its Eastern European empire in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was brought down, and collapsed in 1991. New Zealand, it was said, had simply got off the Western bus one stop before the terminus.

How to cite this page:

Gerald Hensley, 'Cold War - The last decade: the 1980s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by Gerald Hensley, published 20 Jun 2012